By any measure, Mike Benefiel's journey is one of the most extensive of any collegiate wrestler, in terms of the number of schools ... number of years ... and miles traveled. This may be even more surprising for a young man whose high school credentials were as blue chip as any in recent memory. After all, Benefiel won four Illinois high school state titles, along with a number of national titles.
A blue chip prep career
Mike Benefiel grew up in Aurora, Illinois, about 45 minutes straight west of the Chicago Loop, and not too far from his new college home at Elmhurst College. Introduced to wrestling at age 6, Benefiel attended Montini Catholic, a suburban prep powerhouse, where he compiled a 200-4 record. In the 75 years of Illinois high school state championships, Benefiel became only the ninth individual to win a state title in each of his four years at Montini, bringing home championships at 119, 140, 152, and 171 pounds.
Benefiel's prep-era accomplishments went well beyond the Land of Lincoln. He was crowned champ at the Walsh Ironman in 2004. That same year, Benefiel became a Cadet National freestyle champion in 2004, then won the 171-pound title in the Junior National freestyle competition in Fargo in 2007. Benefiel was also honored with the Dave Schultz High School Excellence Award, presented to the top high school senior in the nation who demonstrates excellence in wrestling, scholastic achievement, character, citizenship and community service.
All these achievements did not go unnoticed by the national wrestling media. Benefiel had been named by InterMat as the top high school prospect at 160 pounds -- and sixth overall, when considering all weight classes.
Starting college close to home
When it was time to pick a college, Benefiel remained within the Chicago area, choosing Northwestern University. Competing unattached, Benefiel racked up a 19-4 record as a Wildcat wrestler.
When asked about his time at the Big Ten school located in Evanston, Benefiel said, "While I was there, I really enjoyed wrestling. However, I failed two drug tests for marijuana use, and was released from the team."
In 2009, Mike Benefiel won a University Nationals freestyle title (Photo/Kevin Schlosser, BuckeyeWrestling.com)Eager to continue his academic and wrestling careers -- and set the stage for transferring to another Division I school -- Benefiel headed south on I-55 to enroll at St. Louis Community College-Meramec.
In a May 2009 interview with InterMat's Andrew Hipps -- conducted sixth months after Mike Benefiel's separation from Northwestern -- his father Dan said that his son had talked to a number of top Division I mat programs, including Oklahoma State, Minnesota, Iowa State, Nebraska, Missouri, Virginia Tech, Oregon State, and University of Tennessee-Chattanooga.
After considering his options, Mike Benefiel said in the InterMat interview for this feature, "While at Meramec, I got in touch with John Smith and Eric Guerrero, who encouraged me to come to Oklahoma State."
Two seasons in Stillwater
Before stepping out onto the mat at the school that's the home of the Cowboys, Benefiel had to first enroll at Northern Oklahoma College, also in Stillwater ... all because of the complex transfer rules that are unique to each conference, and each school.
Mike Benefiel won the Reno Tournament of Champions as a Cowboy during the 2009-10 college season (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)Mike Benefiel spent two years at Oklahoma State, where he compiled an impressive 51-14 overall record, 22-7 in dual-meet competition. Eleven of his victories were by pin, 13 by major decision, and five were technical falls.
Despite those stats, all was not happy for Benefiel as a Cowboy.
When asked what challenges he faced at Oklahoma State, Benefiel listed a number of aspects, starting with his analysis of his on-the-mat performance.
"I could feel the pressure of being at a big university in a big-time program, especially one like Oklahoma State," Benefiel disclosed.
"I really tried to put aside expectations but, when it really counted, I failed, missing out on a Big 12 title, and just missing out on All-American."
(Benefiel was a two-time runner-up at the conference championships, losing to Nebraska's Stephen Dwyer in the 174-pound finals at the 2010 Big 12s ... then, the following year, he fell to Iowa State's Jon Reader in the Big 12 title bout.)
In 2010, Mike Benefiel lost in the NCAA quarterfinals to Virginia's Chris Henrich, 5-4, and was eventually eliminated from the competition in the round of 12 (Photo/Larry Slater)"At the end of the year, not achieving your goals is devastating."
Benefiel also cited other aspects of life at Oklahoma State that were challenging.
"I wasn't doing as well I should have been in the classroom," Benefiel continued. "I think being at Oklahoma State was a bit of a culture shock for me. Stillwater is so different than the area where I grew up."
"Because I really wasn't happy with where I was, I was also still thinking about what happened at Northwestern, and having regrets about that."
After spending the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons at Oklahoma State, Benefiel decided it was time to take a break from wrestling -- and from college.
"I took the year off," said the four-time Illinois high school mat champ. "I wasn't doing very well in wrestling, or school-wise."
Taking a break, back home
"For the past year, I worked for my dad. He's a veterinarian ... I also volunteer coached a kids' program at an MMA (mixed martial arts) gym run by Carlton Gracie. He has four Chicago area locations."
Benefiel described the responsibilities of each day, saying, "First thing in the morning, I'd open up dad's office, work there for the first part of the day, then coach in the afternoon. There was lots of responsibility involved in both jobs. People were counting on me to do my job at both places. It helped me grow up real quick."
"When you go to school, if you miss a class, it hurts just you. If you miss work, you can hurt others."
After nearly a year being away from a college campus, Mike Benefiel had a revelation.
"Toward last spring, I decided that I wanted to finish up my degree, especially when I realized how close I was to finishing school."
My brother and mother had both gone to Elmhurst (College)," Benefiel continued. "I knew Steve Marianetti. I gave him a call. Started to take some classes last summer, and, now, I'm a full-time student."
"I've known Mike for a long time," said Marianetti, who has been head wrestling coach at Elmhurst College for the past dozen seasons, earning NCAA Division III Coach of the Year honors in 2007. "His brother Joey wrestled here. I had coached Mike at Team Illinois (the Illinois National Championship Junior Dual team, in 2006)."
"I had known he had left Oklahoma State," added Marianetti, a three-time All-American wrestler at the University of Illinois who won the 150-pound title at the 1995 NCAAs. "In talking to him, I realized he had one year of wrestling eligibility left. In terms of academics, he's a senior."
"We're all trying to leave a legacy," Marianetti continued. "Mike left a great legacy as a wrestler here in Illinois. I told him, 'This is your opportunity to add to that legacy. Let's conclude your career on a high note.'"
At home at Elmhurst
When asked how Mike Benefiel is doing so far in the young season, Marianetti responded, "He's had his share of hurdles to clear and adjustments to make. He came in a bit heavy. He really wanted to wrestle at 174. Per NCAA rules, he's had to slowly make his way back to 174."
Steve MarianettiWhy 174? "We talked about what weight he would rather compete at," said the man at the helm of the Elmhurst Bluejay wrestling program. "He feels more confident there. It's where he's been for a number of years."
"He hasn't done a ton of wrestling for us yet," Marianetti continued. "Right now, he's 5-1 (8-1 at the time of publication). The one loss was in a dual; he won the other dual match. His other matches had been at a tournament, the Concordia Open two weeks ago, where he wrestled aggressively."
"In his one loss, he realized how tough Division III is," said Marianetti. "That loss woke him up in a positive way."
Speaking of positives, Marianetti sees Benefiel as a positive influence on the entire Elmhurst wrestling squad.
"He's a great example for the rest of the room. He's already serving as a mentor to some of the younger guys. He has a good work ethic, and a deep knowledge of the sport. He's in there helping to teach the young guys."
Marianetti openly addressed the fact that Mike Benefiel attended four other schools before coming to Elmhurst. "Everybody has his own unique journey. Mike has had some struggles in the past, but he's one of the great wrestlers of our state. I told him, 'Let's finish off your wrestling career and have fun. Take the pressure away.'"
"I'm definitely not a high-pressure coach."
Marianetti, a four-time Academic All-American at Illinois, also commented on what he sees as Elmhurst's more favorable academic setting for Benefiel, saying, "The environment here is lower-key. We typically have about 15 students per class."
Mike BenefielIn a separate interview, Benefiel echoed his new coach's sentiments.
"After going through five years of other schools, I really appreciate Elmhurst College. Smaller schools like Elmhurst tend to have profs you can talk to, ask questions. They seem to be more approachable, more caring. It's a lot more intimate atmosphere." said Benefiel, who is now a history major.
Benefiel added, "I really like coach Marianetti. He's so approachable."
"His program is a lot less pressure-filled than in Division I. Here we have 7-8 workouts per week, compared to a dozen or more in D1."
Benefiel's feeling of reduced pressure at Elmhurst goes beyond fewer workouts.
"At Oklahoma State, it's all about how you perform," said the former Cowboy 174-pounder. "If you don't perform, you get replaced in the lineup. Here, it's all about getting back to the reasons why I love wrestling."
"In Division I, you can easily lose the love of the sport," Benefiel continued. "Coach Marianetti has stressed, 'Go out there and have fun.'"
"I think this is the kind of environment I need to conclude my college career."
Interestingly, Elmhurst was not on Benefiel's radar back in high school.
"Going into college, I wouldn't have thought of going to a Division III school," Benefiel continued. "I took a roundabout journey to get here."
Steve Marianetti used similar language to describe how Mike Benefiel came to Elmhurst.
"When we sat down and talked, I said, 'We don't judge the voyage by leaving port, but how we finish the voyage.'"
Where will Mike Benefiel's voyage take him once he's graduated from Elmhurst in 2013?
"I'm still thinking about that. I've thought a lot about going into coaching. I think I can break down technique and get through to others," said the wrestler who spent part of his year off teaching kids interested in MMA the fine points of the oldest and greatest sport.
As for whether he might enter MMA competition, Benefiel responded, "I can't see myself doing that. I really enjoy the instruction, though, helping students see the interrelationships among the various martial arts."
Whatever path he chooses, the knowledge and experience gained on Mike Benefiel's life journey so far should serve him well.